Sunday, May 4, 2008

Japan, Home of the Cute and Inbred Dog

Or how about a teacup poodle so tiny it will fit into a purse — the canine equivalent of a bonsai?

The Japanese sure do.

Rare dogs are highly prized here, and can set buyers back more than $10,000. But the real problem is what often arrives in the same litter: genetically defective sister and brother puppies born with missing paws or faces lacking eyes and a nose.

There have been dogs with brain disorders so severe that they spent all day running in circles, and others with bones so frail they dissolved in their bodies. Many carry hidden diseases that crop up years later, veterinarians and breeders say.

Kiyomi Miyauchi was heartbroken to discover this after one of two Boston terriers she bought years ago suddenly collapsed last year into spasms on the living room floor and died. In March, one of its puppies died the same way; another went blind.

Ms. Miyauchi stumbled across a widespread problem here that is only starting to get attention. Rampant inbreeding has given Japanese dogs some of the highest rates of genetic defects in the world, sometimes four times higher than in the United States and Europe.

These illnesses are the tragic consequences of the national penchant in Japan for turning things cute and cuddly into social status symbols. But they also reflect the fondness for piling onto fads in Japan, a nation that always seems caught in the grip of some trend or other.

“Japanese are maniacs for booms,” said Toshiaki Kageyama, a professor of veterinary medicine specializing in genetic defects at Azabu University in Sagamihara. “But people forget here that dogs aren’t just status symbols. They are living things.”

Dogs are just one current rage. Less consequential is the big boom in the color pink: pink digital cameras, pink portable game consoles and, yes, pink laptop computers have become must-haves for young women. Last year, it was “bug king,” a computer game with battling beetles.

A number of the booms in Japan, including Tamagotchi — basically a virtual pet that grew on a computer screen — and the fanciful cartoon characters of Pok√©mon, have made their way across the Pacific and swept up American children, too.

The affection for fads in Japan reflects its group-oriented culture, a product of the conformity taught in its grueling education system. But booms also take off because they are fueled by big business. Companies like Sony and Nintendo are constantly looking to create the next adorable hit, churning out cute new characters and devices. Booms help sustain an entire industrial complex, from software makers to marketers and distributors, that thrives off the pack mentality of consumers in Japan.

The same thing is happening in Japan’s fast-growing pet industry, estimated at more than $10 billion a year. Chihuahuas are the current hot breed, after one starred in the television ads of a finance company. In the early 1990s, a TV drama featuring a Siberian husky helped send annual sales rocketing from just a few hundred dogs to 60,000; sales fell when the fad cooled, according to the Japan Kennel Club. The breed took off despite being inappropriately large for cramped homes in Japan.

The United States also experiences surges in sales of certain breeds, and some states have confronted “puppy mills” that churn out popular breeds by enacting “puppy lemon laws” that prevent breeders from selling diseased animals.

But in Japan, the sales spikes are far more extreme, statistics show. The kennel club says unethical breeders try to cash in on the booms, churning out large volumes of puppies from a small number of parents. While many breeders have stuck to healthy mating practices, the lure of profits has attracted less scrupulous breeders and led to proliferation of puppy mills.

Some veterinarians and other experts cite another, less obvious factor behind widespread risky inbreeding in Japan’s dog industry — the nation’s declining birthrate.

As the number of childless women and couples in Japan has increased, so has the number of dogs, which are being coddled and doted upon in place of children, experts say. In the last decade, the number of pet dogs in Japan has doubled to 13 million last year — outnumbering children under 12 — according to Takashi Harada, president of Yaseisha, a publisher of pet industry magazines.

“Households with few or no children are turning to dogs to fill the void,” he said. “For a dog to be part of the family, it has to be unique and have character, like a person.”

Indeed, many of these buyers want dogs they can show off like proud parents. They are willing to pay top yen, with rarer dogs fetching higher prices. Coveted traits like a blue-tinged coat are often the result of recessive genes, which can determine appearance only when combined with another recessive gene.

Inbreeding is a quick way to bring out recessive traits, as dogs carrying the gene are repeatedly mated with their own offspring, enhancing the trait over successive generations.

When done carefully, some types of inbreeding are safe. But in Japan, all too many breeders throw aside caution in search of a quick profit, experts in the business say. In these cases, for every dog born with prized colors, many more appear with defects, also the product of recessive genes.

“The demand is intense, and so is the temptation,” said Hidekazu Kawanabe, one of the country’s top Chihuahua breeders. “There are a lot of bad breeders out there who see dogs as nothing more than an industrial product to make quick money.”

Awareness is so recent that the only comprehensive survey of genetic defects came out two years ago, looking at malformed hips in Labrador retrievers. The results showed that nearly half of all Labradors suffered from the deformity — four times more than the United States, according to Professor Kageyama at Azabu University, who conducted the survey.

Hirofumi Sasaki, a pet store owner in the western city of Hiroshima, has seen so many defective dogs that last year he converted an old bar into a hospice to care for them. So far he has taken in 32 dogs, though only 12 have survived.

One is Keika, a deaf 1-year-old female dachshund with eyes that wander aimlessly. Her breeder was originally selling her for about $7,500 because she is half-white, a rare trait in dachshunds.

“That is an unnatural color, like a person with blue skin,” Mr. Sasaki said.

The breeder told Mr. Sasaki that he had bred a dog with three generations of offspring — in human terms, first with its daughter, then a granddaughter and then a great-granddaughter — until Keika was born. The other four puppies in the litter were so hideously deformed that they were killed right after birth.

Ms. Miyauchi, the Boston terrier owner and a resident of the western city of Kobe, said she was appalled to learn how common inbreeding was in Japan. After the death of her second Boston terrier, she said she went looking for the breeder, but the phone number she got from the pet shop was invalid.

“No one’s really monitoring the industry,” she said.

The government concedes that oversight is poor, and passed a law in June to revoke the licenses of breeders who use dogs with genetic defects for breeding. But the Environment Ministry, which has jurisdiction over pets, says it has just four officials to monitor all of 25,000 pet shops, kennels and breeders in Japan.

The Japan Kennel Club began adding results of DNA screening onto pedigree certificates in April. But that falls short of the American Kennel Club, which discourages risky inbreeding by listing acceptable colors for each breed.

“Japan is about 30 or 40 years behind in dealing with genetic defects,” said Takemi Nagamura, president of the Japan Kennel Club.

Ultimately, animal care professionals say, the solution is educating not just breeders but potential dog owners.

“If consumers didn’t buy these unnatural dogs,” said Chizuko Yamaguchi, a veterinarian at the Japan Animal Welfare Society, “breeders wouldn’t breed them.”

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Principal Allegedly Outs Gay Students

A Memphis high school principal, fed up with public displays of affection in the hallways, allegedly displayed a list of couples — including some who are gay — in the school, publicly outing the boys and violating their privacy, according to one of the students involved.

Memphis Principal Daphne Beasley is being accused of posting a list naming the school's teenage gay couples -- without their O.K. -- in an effort to combat public displays of affection.
(ABC News)

"I really feel that my personal privacy was invaded," Nicholas, one of the young men who claims his sexuality was exposed without his approval by his principal, told ABC News' Memphis affiliate Eyewitness News Everywhere. "I mean, Principal Beasley called my mother and outted me to my mother!"

"It was actually frightening," Nicholas said of the incident, which occurred in Fall 2007, "to see a list with my name on it where not just other teachers could see but students as well."

Nicholas, an 11th grader at Hollis F. Price Middle College High School in Memphis, was allegedly named, along with his suspected boyfriend, 10th grader Andrew, on a list of couples posted by their principal, Daphne Beasley.

Beasley did not return calls made by but according to a statement from the Memphis school district, while the principal was tired of the hallway hanky-panky, she did nothing wrong in alerting parents to the activity.

"The principal did not list any information other than students' names on her personal call list, and she certainly did not specify the sexual orientation of any student," said Van D. Turner, Jr., associate general counsel of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education, in a statement provided to "Additionally, the list was never posted publicly anywhere at the school."

According to the statement, this "call list" was used by Beasley to "notify the parents of those children she knew to be involved romantically" after the school received "numerous complaints" of "explicit sexual behavior in public view."

ACLU Threatens Legal Action

The case has been taken up by the leading civil liberties group in the United States.

"I really couldn't believe that a principal would have done something like this," said Christine Sun, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney handling the case after it was brought to her attention by Nicholas' mother.

"The Constitution provides all of us with the right to privacy and the right to associate whomever we want to associate with," said Sun. "And by creating this list and intruding upon these students' privacy without any reason to, she violated their constitutional rights."

The ACLU claims in a letter to the Memphis City Schools dated April 29 that the principal requested over the school intercom system that all the teachers and staff provide her with the names of students who were a couple, "hetero or homo."

What's more, according to the ACLU, the list was not as confidential as the school district claims, but rather posted in full view of those who entered the principal's office — including gossipy high school students.

"The list was in plain site of anyone who walked into the principal's office," said Sun, who said there were approximately 15 other couples on the list, including several more who were also gay. "It's our understanding that [Nicholas and Andrew's] names, and the fact that they were a couple, quickly spread at the school."

Sun, who told that she believes the Memphis school district to be "homophobic," said that Nicholas' mother — who was "shocked" to hear that her son is gay — reported that Beasley said she "had a problem with homosexuality" and that "homosexuality will not be tolerated."

ABC News doesn't have the last names of the students, and the ACLU said both the boys and their parents declined to be interviewed for this story.

"It's raised our concerns about how gay students are treated," added Sun, who said that the ACLU will take legal action if they do not receive a response from the Memphis School District before May 9.

The school board, meanwhile, is sticking to its stance.

"It is the position of the Memphis City Schools that he principal did act in an appropriate manner in order to correct a serious issue [of public display of affection] at the school and that Memphis City Schools has not subjected either of these students to discriminatory treatment," said the school board's Turner in the statement.

A formal response will be drafted before the ACLU's deadline, Turner told

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Bodyshock: The Amazing Story behind the 256 Year-Old Man

Li Ching-Yun. Image from The People’s Republic of China

According to the 1933 obituaries in both Time Magazine and the New York Times, Li Ching-Yun was reported to have buried 23 wives and fostered 180 descendants by the time he died at the age of 256.

Was he really that old? Could he have forgotten his own birthday or exaggerated his claim? Environmental Graffiti investigates.

The Secrets to an Interminable Life

“Keep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, walk sprightly like a pigeon and sleep like a dog.” These were the words of advice Li gave to Wu Pei-fu, the warlord, who took Li into his house to learn the secret of extremely long life.

Li maintained that inward calm and peace of mind were the secrets to incredible longevity. His diet after all, was mainly based on rice and wine.

From 0 to 256

Unsurprisingly, not much is known about Li Ching-Yun’s early life. We know he was born in the province of Szechwan in China, where he also died. We also know that by his tenth birthday, Ching-Yun was literate and had travelled to Kansu, Shansi, Tibet, Annam, Siam and Manchuria gathering herbs. After that, it gets a bit fuzzy…

Apparently, for over one hundred years, Li continued selling his own herbs and then subsequently sold herbs collected by others. He also (according to Time) had six-inch long fingernails on his right hand.

You might be thinking that he looked decrepit, shrivelled, leather-like and creepy, however sources at the time were astonished at his youthfulness. Was this suspect? Was Li Ching-Yun as old as he claimed he was, or was his birthday a clerical error or exaggeration?

Let’s take a brief look at both sides…

The Nine Lives of Li Ching-Yun

By his own admission he was born in 1736 and had lived 197 years. However, in 1930 a professor and dean at Minkuo University by the name of Wu Chung-chien, found records “proving” that Li was born in 1677. Records allegedly showed that the Imperial Chinese Government congratulated him on his 150th and 200th Birthdays.

So the question is, had he forgotten his own birthday? Was this even the same Li Ching-Yun?

Looking at all of this from a medical and documented perspective: Jeanne Louise Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 so far holds the title for the person who has roamed the earth the longest: 122 years, which is a phenomenal length of time.

That means, that if the records discovered by Wu Chung-chien were accurate, Li Ching-Yun’s age would surpass the official record by more than 130 years. Is this even medically possible?

The detail, which seems to prove both arguments and debunk them at the same time, is Li’s youthful appearance, noted in a 1928 article from the New York Times. Visually and physically, he appeared to look like a typical 60 year-old. Does this therefore signify a superhuman body capable of lasting one quarter of a millennium, or is the story of Li Ching-Yun based on a series of half-truths, lies or exaggerations?

Unfortunately, we may never know. You may draw your own logical conclusions.

In the province of Szechwan in China lived until last week Li Ching-yun. In China where Age means something he was a great man. By his own story he was born in 1736, had lived 197 years. By the time he was ten years old he had traveled in Kansu, Shansi, Tibet, Annam, Siam and Manchuria gathering herbs. He continued to gather herbs for the rest of his first 100 years. He lived on herbs and plenty of rice wine. When asked for his secret of long life. Li Ching-yun gave it readily: "Keep a quiet heart, sit like a tortoise, walk sprightly like a pigeon and sleep like a dog." The "Scholar War Lord" Wu Pei-fu. not satisfied with this formula, took Li into his home and was lectured on "how to get the most out of each century" by maintaining "inward calm." Some said he had buried 23 wives, was living with his 24th. a woman of 60, had descendants of eleven generations. The fingernails of his venerable right hand were six inches long. Yet to skeptical Western eyes he looked much like any Chinese 60-year-old. In 1930 Professor Wu Chung-chieh, dean of the department of education at Chengtu University, found records that the Imperial Chinese Government had congratulated one Li Ching-yun in 1827 on his birthday. The birthday was his 150th, making the man who died last week—if it was the same Li Ching-yun, and respectful Chinese preferred to think so—a 256-year-old.

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